"I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC" WAS ALWAYS JUST TO ME, lyrics of an 80s song from a musical that my friends and I had been in a production of, right at the start of our teens. I never knew what it meant, or what relation it had to Fame's title or themes, but being such a catchy set of words, it stayed with me.
Turns out, "I sing the body electric" is more than just a lyric in an 80s musical or a Lana Del Rey song. I sing the Body Electric was the title added on in 1867, to a poem by Walt Whitman in 1855. Exploring the physical body and its linkage with the soul, Whitman's poem lists and tells of the body and its parts, structured in a way that can be metaphorically likened to the structure of the human body itself. Divided into nine stanzas, Whitman alternates anecdotes with lists; glorious lists that scrutinize the body's form and function, from "Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears," to "lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean." He tells of a slave auctioneer, who "does not half know" the phenomenal body he is auctioning off, with its "Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes... Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck," its heart wherein lie "all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations" and ultimately, its fathering of "those who shall be fathers in their turns, the start of populous states and rich republics, countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments."
There's no denying that such poetic depictions of the body leave our everyday fitness and weight loss topics sound pale and uninspired. "Why The Pushup Is The World's Greatest Exercise" or "40 Hottest Female Celebrity Bodies of All Time" are hardly poetry but they are nonetheless liked and shared by the millions. With the baffling co-existence of weight-related diseases and weight-loss obsession, is it valid to observe that we nowadays have too little appreciation for the human body? Treasuring neither the multitude of its parts, nor the brilliance of its systems, we tend to fixate on its outermost aspects: skin tone, limb length, height, weight, or bust size. Even Yosuke Onishi's marvelous torso illustration would most likely undergo Photoshopping in the lower abdominal area, if it were a photograph of a woman. No bikini bridge there.
Where health and fitness are not in question, perhaps we can try turning to more poetic and artistic media, that might allow us to see the body not as an object to measure against present aesthetic standards, but as a scientific wonder, a piece of poetry or work of art. "The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones," With a shift in perspective, any body can be quite electric.
All excerpts from "I Sing the Body Electric" by Walt Whitman, www.poetryfoundation.org Illustration by Onishi Yosuke, en.tis-home.com/onishi-yosuke